Television: Who's Afraid of Big, Bad TV?

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The program obeys an iron law of show business: the greater the hit, the louder the detractions. Marshall McLuhan, in a sense the show's godfather, considers the whole thing naive. "Kids have graduated far beyond Sesame Street," he declares. "TV has already exposed them to the lethal adult world, they know about that now, and that's why they have no intention of growing up. They know that adult life brings the biggest game of all; whether it's Mannix or Mission: Impossible, it's all man hunting. TV is the cyclops, the eye of the man hunter."

In short, McLuhanesque gloom as usual; the juggernaut future is here, so let us all lie down. But as Lewis Mumford indicates in The Pentagon of Power, what McLuhan is asking for is utter human docility. "The goal is total cultural dissolution­or what McLuhan characterizes as a 'tribal communism'­McLuhan's public relations euphemism for totalitarian control." Thus Sesame Street is indeed opposed to the message, if not the medium, of the Master. The show's civilized magic and surrealism seek to increase a child's sense of himself, to dilate his imagination and his capacities.

Far more cogent criticism of the show comes from Urie Bronfenbrenner, professor of psychology at Cornell University. "The children [on the show] are charming. Among the adults there are no cross words, no conflicts, no difficulties, nor, for that matter, any obligations or visible attachments," he says. "The old, the ugly or the unwanted is simply made to disappear through a manhole." From the New Left comes the criticism that since the show's emphasis is on achievement­learning letters and numbers­it is merely the bottom rung on the escalator to Charles Reich's Consciousness II. From the Old Guard comes the suspicion that the "switched-on" classroom is aimed at the eventual displacement of the teacher by an unsalaried cathode-ray tube.

In conversation with TIME Correspondent Mary Cronin, Mrs. Cooney countered her critics: "McLuhan believes that content is irrelevant. I say, arrant nonsense. Can we doubt that if every time a commercial came on for the last 20 years and it said, 'go to church,' it wouldn't have had a profound effect?" Toward traditionalists, Mrs. Cooney is reassuring: "TV has a very important role to play in education. Still, it's just a big cold box, and just can't replace a loving teacher who cares about a child."

State of Dishabille

On the New Left, she is less patient: "Why do they think black parents are striking the schools? Education is not a middle-class value, it's the way to self-respect. The problem with the New Left in this country is that it has no historical roots. It's made up of upper-middle-class kids." On the relative blandness of the people v. the puppets: "Our target kids have enough conflict in their lives. We want our hosts to be an integrated group who treat each other with kindness and respect."

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